Nineteen alleged hate crimes and bias-related incidents have been reported to Public Safety on Columbia’s Morningside campus since 2015, according to a Spectator review of crime logs. A majority of those incidents did not trigger immediate University-wide communications sent directly to students.
Under a federal law known as the Clery Act, the University is not mandated to notify students of all bias-related incidents documented in its crime logs; Public Safety is only required to inform the student body of Clery reportable crimes, including hate crimes, that pose an “ongoing security threat” to students. Legally, this excludes all incidents categorized as “harassment” under the crime logs, but may include criminal offenses such as burglary, assault, and vandalism, especially when the perpetrator is still unidentified and at large.
The Clery Act also does not specify what factors might constitute an ongoing threat for a hate crime. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education provides a series of hypothetical scenarios meant to guide universities in determining whether something should be classified as an ongoing threat. Ultimately, the decision is up to the discretion of the individual school, according to legal Clery Act experts.
On the Morningside campus, one bias-related assault and three bias-related harassments were reported to Public Safety in the past year alone. The three incidents of harassment occurred over the span of just two months, raising concerns from students and the Columbia community about the University’s role in reporting them to the community.
Last December, Julian von Abele, CC ’21, was caught on video spewing white supremacist and racist rhetoric at a group of primarily black students, in an tirade that has been categorized as a bias-related harassment incident. Earlier that month, an anonymous student in Carman Hall was targeted with anti-black vandalism, when an unknown perpetrator tore an air vent cover off the wall, marked it with an anti-black slur, and placed it outside their door.
In November, the office of Elizabeth Midlarsky, a Jewish professor at Teachers College, was vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs and swastikas. However, this incident is not included in the 19 reported incidents on the Morningside campus, because Teachers College falls under a different legal jurisdiction and a different Public Safety office. Following these occurrences, the University publicly denounced hate, as well as reaffirmed its commitment to fostering an inclusive community.
According to a University spokesperson, Columbia closely adheres to all Clery Act regulations, which outlines when a university should release alerts to the student body.
“Members of this and every university community rely on staying informed about threats to health and safety, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” the spokesperson said. “The appropriate means for providing such information, including through campus alerts, are guided by federal laws and regulations, and our own warning policy. We’ve followed that guidance and those policies here.”
Interviews with students and Clery Act experts reveal, however, that merely adhering to the standards mandated under the Act does not necessarily assure student safety, particularly given that hate crimes and incidents of bias-related harassment both target a group and identity rather than an individual, unlike most other crimes listed under the Act. The lack of announcements, or clarity on the protocol for releasing them, can make the University seem as if it is not taking action, discouraging students from reporting bias and discrimination.
In late December, when Carman Residence Hall Director Janae Buege-McClain notified students of the anti-black vandalism incident, the email detailing what had happened was sent only to Carman residents. According to the email, the incident was “addressed with residents impacted in the moment,” but did not inform students of whether the perpetrator had been identified or what specific disciplinary steps were taken.
Furthermore, the Columbia community at large was never notified about the incident in a campus-wide announcement.
A Columbia College spokesperson again emphasized that the incident was addressed immediately with residents affected, and added that the College followed its Bias and Discrimination Response Protocol in light of the incident.
However, students expressed significant concern over the understanding that only Carman residents should be notified about a case of anti-black vandalism, particularly as any anti-black crime affects a body of people, rather than just an individual or a residence hall.
According to Nigel Telman, CC ’21, not hearing an official announcement from the University regarding the incident in Carman felt like a minimization of attacks against black students, particularly because the incident impacted all black students on campus. Telman said that the lack of information and transparency could discourage students from reporting such crimes.
“I would appreciate hearing from [the University] first when something gets back to them. … I would just like to know that it happened, that they’re on top of it, that they’re taking steps to try to minimize similar events from happening,” Telman said. “As a black student, it makes me feel like if it happened to me and I went to the administration, the student that did it to me wouldn’t suffer any consequences, and that does not sit well with me at all.”
Aisse Torres, CC ’21, added that students of color are uniquely impacted by hate crimes, and said that consequently, she believes Columbia has an obligation to make ts responses to related incidents transparent.
“As someone who identifies as a person of color, I would want to know what’s going on with my peers around me. … I would just care to know the steps the school is taking to address hate crimes,” Torres said. “It would create more of a trusting environment between students of color affected by hate crimes and students of color in general, and the administration and school in general.”
Citing the nature of hate crimes, and the minimum requirements outlined by the Clery Act, Laura Egan, Senior Director of Programs at the Clery Center, said that universities need to be more cognizant of student safety. According to Egan, universities should release more specific information on hate crimes and bias-related incidents, particularly related to available resources, to ensure future prevention.
“The second half of [a public alert] is how you can prevent, intervene, or report these types of things from happening. It’s about sharing prevention strategies, encouraging reporting … you’re encouraging people to report and identifying ways people can safely intervene, to the extent that they’re comfortable, when these types of situations happen. … They’ve always been about more than just putting you in the know [about the specific crime].”
The University bases its timely warning policy and procedure—which outlines the procedures for issuing timely warnings for Clery Act crimes—on the Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting guidelines. The handbook emphasizes that a timely warning must be decided on a case-by-case basis, which takes into account all the facts surrounding an incident, including the possibility that there may be a continual danger to the campus community. It does not specify what these factors might be.
The timely warning policy and procedure is documented on Public Safety’s website as well as in the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, which includes details about the number of hate crimes that have occured over the past three years. However, the report does not include information about the exact date or location of these crimes, nor information about bias-related harassment that does not fall under the Clery Act.
In order to access the full set of public crime logs, which include a list of locations, times, and dates of bias-related incidents and hate crimes, students must contact a Public Safety representative to comb through the hundreds of pages of crimes listed by day.
By comparison, both Hunter College and Vassar College maintain up-to-date crime logs on their websites with information readily available to students about the date and location of hate crimes. Vassar, in addition to a number of other universities—such as Southern Illinois University and Utah State University—also outlines their formal procedure for responding to hate crimes and bias-related incidents in a detailed flow chart.
“The Clery Act is the floor—it’s the minimal standards that institutions have to meet, but campus communities may have expectations above and beyond what the Clery Act requires,” S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC, and longtime campus safety and Clery Act expert, said. “And in many instances, colleges and universities do take steps to meet that additional interest with additional information that may not otherwise be something that is required under the Clery Act.”
According to Telman, a clearer explanation of how Columbia decides to announce hate crimes and incidents, as well as greater transparency regarding University response overall, is ultimately necessary to prevent further crimes from occurring on campus.
“If the University cared about diversity and supporting marginalized communities like they say that they do, they would ... say ‘hey, we saw this happen and it’s unacceptable,’” Telman said. “I’m not feeling that from them at all, which just emboldens more people [to commit similar crimes] because they know they’re not gonna get any blowback from it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that all 19 of the hate crimes in Public Safety’s Morningside Campus crime log occurred on campus, while four of the nineteen occurred near but off campus. Spectator regrets this error.